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Sunday, Oct 14 2012 11:00 PM

JEAN FULLER: Anniversary of shifting criminals to our communities is nothing to celebrate

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    State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.

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This month marks the one-year anniversary of prison "realignment," a change in public safety policy that moved some criminals from overcrowded state prisons to overcrowded county jails.

Gov. Jerry Brown has highlighted a drop in the number of state prisoners, but it's important we remember that drop is not because fewer crimes are being committed.

Criminals are still committing crimes. They're just not as likely to go to state prison. Many of those convicted of crimes including drug offenses, fraud, property and weapons violations will end up in our local jails and in some cases, released early back into our communities.

Like many jails in California, the Kern County Sheriff's Office detention facilities are already under a federally imposed inmate population cap that limits the number of inmates housed in Kern County jails. According to the Kern County realignment plan for 2012-13, the "significant influx of realignment inmates has forced the Sheriff's Office to release greater numbers of offenders" -- meaning more criminals are out walking the streets of our towns.

The Kern County Sheriff's Office is handling nearly 70 percent more inmates from state prisons than the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation originally estimated it would. Our jails, with 2,862 beds, are bursting at the seams, handling more than 6,000 inmates thanks to realignment. After a year of prison realignment, Kern County public safety -- and the safety of our law enforcement officers -- has become measurably worse.

The Sheriff's Office has noted more serious fights between rival prison gangs at local jails that have resulted in more deputy injuries and assaults. Gang members currently account for 55 percent of the jail population, and the total number of inmates charged with or convicted of felony crimes sits at 86 percent -- significant increases from the past.

In addition, the prison-wise inmates are gaming the jail system much more effectively. Drug activity in Kern County jails is becoming well-planned and organized with new arrestee "transporters" intentionally seeking arrest for the sole purpose of carrying drugs into jail. The black-market sale of tobacco products and cellphones has also become a lucrative business for jail inmates. Realignment has not just overfilled Kern County jails, it has made them riskier places for our law enforcement officials.

The state cannot shift dangerous criminals to local jails without creating serious risks throughout our communities. Local law enforcement officials have done as well as could be expected, given the serious lack of funding they have to improve facilities and training.

The Brown administration's realignment policy is exactly what critics termed it last year -- a serious public risk. It should not continue. This anniversary is nothing to celebrate -- unless you're a criminal.

Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, represents the 18th State Senate District.

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